ATTP has a post on this, from which I’ve nicked most of my links. But he also has 50+ comments, so I abandoned my original plan to put some observations there, where they’d get lost, and have written this.
I’m not going to pretend my opinion – for that is all that this is – is definitive. I worked in Antarctic science a while ago, but never went South myself. But I’ll pretend I can evaluate some of this stuff.
Other people have written stuff:
I’d say there are two interesting questions: was their expedition sufficiently sciencey to ward off criticism; and, if it wasn’t – if it was largely a jolly – were they reckless? After all, no-one criticises pure tourist ships for going south (actually that’s not true: plenty of reflex enviro keep-ant-pure stuff exists, but that’s a different matter), so tourism itself is not a sin, but they tend not to go far south. And this stuff was rather definitely far south. BAS regularly sends people down for jollies, sometimes thinly disguised as “need to familiarise HQ staff with Antarctica”, but no-one believes that. They were selling places on the trip.
I think that a question asked by AR was the trip important enough to justify the cost that is now mounting? is obviously *not* the right question to ask – if they knew they were going to get stuck and need rescue, then obviously they wouldn’t have gone. A righter question would be was the trip important enough to justify (the cost that is now mounting) times (the probability that cost would be incurred)?
If you read their science case you notice that there’s an awful lot of blurb and padding before you get to their actual science case. Which is:
1. gain new insights into the circulation of the Southern Ocean and its impact on the global carbon cycle
2. explore changes in ocean circulation caused by the growth of extensive fast ice and its impact on life in Commonwealth Bay
3. use the subantarctic islands as thermometers of climatic change by using trees, peats and lakes to explore the past
4. investigate the impact of changing climate on the ecology of the subantarctic islands
5. discover the environmental influence on seabird populations across the Southern Ocean and in Commonwealth Bay
6. understand changes in seal populations and their feeding patterns in the Southern Ocean and Commonwealth Bay
7. produce the first underwater surveys of life in the subantarctic islands and Commonwealth Bay
8. determine the extent to which human activity and pollution has directly impacted on this remote region of Antarctica
9. provide baseline data to improve the next generation of atmospheric, oceanic and ice sheet models to improve predictions for the future
Of those, I think that 1 isn’t desperately plausible: that kind of thing needs a concerted programme, not a one-off. They may have thrown some argo floats off, which is nice, but the regular resupply ships can do the same. 2 I have a hard time believing as well. I doubt they were equipped for it.
3 and 4 are believeable, but crucially don’t require going far south into the sea ice. Indeed, those were done on “leg 1″, not “leg 2″ where they got into trouble.
5, again, can’t really be done on a one-off. They probably intended to look at a few birds, but there are loads of people down there doing that kind of stuff anyway. 6 ditto. 7 is squishy bio stuff so I don’t know, but I’m doubtful. 8 sounds dodgy – surely the Australian Antarctic Programme does this kind of stuff?
9 is too vague to mean anything. Richard Tol makes some of the same points at ATTP.
The AAE is inspired by Mawson but is primarily a science expedition; it will be judged by its peer-reviewed publications
which may be true eventually, but certainly isn’t true now; and he can’t possibly believe that everyone is going to suspend judgement for several years. He also says:
The aim of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) is to lead a multidisciplinary research programme in one of the most scientifically exciting regions of our planet, straddling the Southern Ocean and East Antarctic. Using the latest in satellite technology, we are beaming images, movies and text in an attempt to excite the public about science and exploration…
This puzzles me. Here he is, trying to defend its sciencey-ness, and the first thing he does is talk about attempt to excite the public about science and exploration.
From what I’ve seen, which is a distinctly non-exhaustive survey of Stuff, I don’t think their expedition was sciencey enough to ward off criticism. Were they reckless? Well, not quite reckless perhaps, but they were a long way South in what appears to be an isolated area, which was perhaps incautious.
Well, not much chance to leave it there. ATTP added the big issue… is whether or not their decision to go as far South as they did with the ship they were using can be justified which is another question. They weren’t in an icebreaker, they were in an “ice strengthened ship”: see wiki. So they were safe(the Russian crew is still on board,and has not been evacuated), but they risked getting stuck. And even icebreakers can get stuck, unless they’re really sooper, as the Chinese proved. BAS, for example, doesn’t operate icebreakers.
[Further update: but in This was no Antarctic pleasure cruise in Nature, CT says the Russian icebreaker MV Akademik Shokalskiy. That leads me to re-read their website, which says "you can book a berth and join us on the amazing Shokalskiy, a true expedition vessel"; which elides the question. But the brochure clearly states "the Shokalskiy, is a true expedition vessel. Built in 1984 for polar and oceanographic research, she is fully ice-strengthened". Anyway, now that a major question turns around the ship getting stuck, I think its bad that CT isn't being more accurate about the nature of the ship.]
Another Question: how far are they away from a Proper Scientific Base? How far from Mawson? I haven’t seen this written explicitly – or if I have, I’ve forgotten – but I get the impression that its a Long Way – 1000 km or so. Were they only 10 km away, or perhaps even 100, that would alter the “risk” case. [In the continuing bizarre blog-storm on this, Shub Niggurath Climate has a moderately detailed chronology of the ship’s getting stuck. It might even be accurate, who knows. I certainly don’t understand Turney knew southerly winds were prevalent and would likely drive pack ice against their vessel. Perhaps SNC means “northerly”? [Later update: CT gives a rather shorter and not entirely compatible version of events at Nature.]
[And yet another update: McI has one of his usual detailed, but not entirely to be taken at face value, posts. Note in particular how he is careful to assign all responsibility to CT, and doesn't even consider that the Captain might in any way be responsible. However, the compilation of imagery and positions is useful. What's missing it the meteorology: having wind overlaid would be very useful, since the movement of sea ice is a key part of the story.
In one aspect McI scores a definite hit: CT claimed (in the Graun) that We worked on our research programme with the Australian Antarctic Division and other bodies and the expedition was considered significant enough to be given the official stamp of approval. In this recording (at about 1:30) Tony Fleming, director of the Australian Antarctic Division very clearly states that only the Env Impact Assessment was approved; they didn't consider the science at all. CT is telling porkies.
OTOH, Fleming makes clear his opinion that the Captain is the one ultimately in charge of safety.]
* Eli Is Puzzeled
* The Trapped Polar Expedition: Spectacle or Serious Science? – attempts a summary of various discussions, including this one.